Dec 13, 2013
Richard Flacks on Tom Hayden
Posted on Jun 12, 2008
This chapter in Tom’s life story is not well represented in the book, nor does he devote much space to the 20 years he spent in the California Legislature. This absence reflects the fact that he hasn’t written much about these matters. The CED’s work and his efforts in the Legislature certainly bore fruit of which he’s proud (and these are mentioned in the text of the book). But to write in detail about these efforts, and the times themselves, might also be painful. The hope that many new leftists had, in the 1970s, of creating a new movement for economic democracy was considerably dashed by the rise of Reagan and the triumph of conservatism on the national stage. The fact that such a hope existed has been largely obliterated in prevailing memory, and there has not been much documentation of the fact that as national politics moved right in the last 30 years, many localities across the country were moving left. Politics rooted in environmentalism, feminism and the growing numbers of Latino and Asian-American voters have changed local structures of power and implemented some pieces of the “economic democracy” agenda. (The Web site http://www.community-wealth.org/ provides a comprehensive inventory of local efforts at establishing economic democracy.) Below the radar, new forms of citizen action have taken local power away from old local elites. In Santa Barbara, where we’ve lived for 40 years, local government, once securely controlled by bankers and real estate agents, now is led by environmentalists, feminists and liberal Democrats. It’s a shift that’s happened in many other California communities, too. These developments need to be documented, in part because they constitute some of the experience that a new national reform agenda can draw on.
Tom is now 68, and some of us of the SDS generation are in our 70s. It would be a good thing if, individually and collectively, members of that generation were to spend some part of their remaining years in efforts to closely interrogate our political experience. I don’t mean producing further rehashings of “The 1960s.” It’s the 40 years since then that have been inadequately examined. Tom Hayden and his compatriots helped shape the history of these decades, and not always in ways we intended. Still, it’s the right that claims and is generally perceived to have dominated during most of this time. Yet all ideological perspectives from left to right have failed to comprehend the world as we now experience it. An effort to comprehend the state of that world would benefit from a systematic examination of the gap between the expectations and hopes of activists on all sides and the reality that ensued.
Hillary Clinton wasn’t, as far as I know, an SDS member back in the day, but we do know that she was moved by the student movement and the new left. Yet it is Obama, (even though, as he has reminded us, he was only 7 years old in 1968), whose campaign provides validation for some of the hopes of the new left. He, like Tom Hayden, roots his leadership experience in his work as a community organizer. His campaign, as explained by Michelle Obama, bears a striking resemblance to the way Hayden’s 1976 Senate campaign was conceived. She declared: “Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.” Obama’s frequent assertion that it’s not the president who makes change, it’s the movement from the bottom up that makes change, very much expresses the spirit of the “organizing tradition” that includes SNCC, SDS, King, Saul Alinsky and the “local heroes” who led the movements of the 1960s. Maybe participation in and critical observation of the Obama experiment will provide the best opportunity we’ve had to learn about the chances for that democratic society Tom and his co-conspirators started to write and organize for in the very year that Obama was born.
Richard Flacks is professor of sociology emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he has taught since 1969. He is the author of “Making History: The American Left and the American Mind,” published by Columbia University Press.
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